Sunshine on summit for Reek Sunday
Estimates vary between 15,000 and 20,000
Dominick Geraghty, Carnaross, Kells, Co Meath,with his dog Edward on his way down the mountain during his pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick. Photograph: Michael McLaughlin
Benedict Donnelly wore short pants, a shirt and a tie when he first climbed the Reek as a small boy, and his best Sunday shoes were almost worn through when he was down. Over the past half century, the Galwayman has been rained upon, wind-blown and hail-battered on Mayo’s holy mountain and he’s done the route barefoot more times than he can remember.
So yesterday’s ascent for Domhnach na Cruaiche was more than somewhat disorientating – bright sunshine and humidity being the only elements to contend with. Even the forecast thundery showers never materialised, as scores of pilgrims streamed up the 765m quartzite peak – estimates varied between 15,000 and 20,000.
Breakfast burgers and chips were sizzling, and ash and blackthorn sticks were for sale (€3) or rent (€1.50) as the purveyors of miraculous medals lined the approaches. However, Donnelly had come prepared, with two hand-hewn hazel rods – one for him and one for The Irish Times.
Bare feet better
It was shortly before the first station, Leacht Benain, that we encountered the first of a handful of pilgrims without shoes.
“I’ve a big bag of money in my pocket,”Johnny Toner (46) from Leitrim quipped as he eyed this reporter’s boots. Born on “Garland” or Reek Sunday, he’d been coming to Murrisk for the past seven years, and accomplished yesterday’s ascent in just one hour and 20 minutes.
“People give you space, so that makes it easier,” Toner explained. “But bare feet is also better for the mountain – you’re not kicking up half the scree. Look at the problems they’ve been having here with erosion. The Reek would be far better off if we all left the shoes at home.”
Lack of rainfall made it unusually dry underfoot. A sign on the shoulder warned that these were the last working toilets, as facilities at the summit wouldn’t flush.
Glancing down towards the lake below the “Hollow” where people set their names in boulders, there wasn’t even a pond – just a ring of parched peat and grass.
The conditions couldn’t have been better for John Heffernan from Whitegate, Co Cork, visually impaired and climbing with guide Mark O’Gorman from Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. It was similarly ideal for several young women, one with bright blue nail-polished toes, who’d left the footwear behind. As we negotiated the treacherous scree slope to the summit, there were gentle expletives all around (“shit . . . oh God forgive me”) and the rumble of rolling rubble all around.
Concelebrants were Bishop Brendan Kelly of Achonry, and local and visiting priests, including Fr John Kenny and Nigerian native Fr Michael Alanga, based in Longford.
As far as Fr Kenny could recall, it was eight years ago since there had been such good weather, back in 2005 when the chapel’s centenary was marked. Archbishop Neary acknowledged that numbers were somewhat down, but pointed out that this year’s “Reek Week” for The Gathering had attracted climbers over the previous six days.
During his homily, Dr Neary wondered whether pride was more of a contributory factor than greed to the economic “woes” – as in “the pride that refuses to acknowledge my lack of control over the environment, my illusion that I can shape the world as I wish”, he said.
“The freedom of the few was purchased at the expense of many to poverty and deprivation,” Dr Neary continued. He referred to the church’s right to involve itself in issues concerning the common good, and, during Mass, prayed for the “legislators” and the equal right to life of a mother and child.
As hundreds queued for communion, the summit was hard to leave – a drumlin-speckled Clew Bay set against the silhouette of Clare island, with Inishturk and Caher further west on an indigo Atlantic. Never were so many photos taken, so few buying cups of soup.
Then, the toe curling tortuous descent – the great leveller – as hazel rods came into their own. Up to 300 volunteers with Mayo Mountain Rescue, the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation, Order of Malta and Civil Defence ran rolling shifts with tents and stretchers, while an Air Corps helicopter was on standby below. In all, there were 17 reported injuries, mainly lower leg wounds, but two serious cases involved airlifts. A woman in her 50s sustained a head injury shortly after 7am, and a 67-year-old tourist had a suspected cardiac arrest.
A young girl talking on the mobile phone was worried about her goldfish. Two Dubliners were discussing the price of wine.
An Englishman with a Jack Russell was wondering if he could tuck him into his shirt. Further snatches of conversation shortened the journey, and then, before we knew it, we were down, and religious groups were plying the weary with pamphlets.
“People think this is about climbing but it’s about tolerating,” Benedict Donnelly explained. “It’s about respect among people coming up behind you, or against you, as you are negotiating those narrow bits... “
“Like life really . . . yes, like life.”